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How Obama Can Fight Hunger Now

In his State of the Union address, President Obama offered the kind of concrete proposals that anti-poverty advocates have long been waiting for: raising the minimum wage, expanding high-quality early childhood education and creating new “ladders of opportunity” in twenty of the poorest communities in the country.Volunteers fill bags at a food bank in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

All of these policies would help reverse the spread of hunger, which now affects more than 50 million Americans, including more than one in five children—an increase of 37 percent in childhood hunger since 1999. However, these promising proposals aren’t nearly enough, especially since the country is poised to move in the wrong direction in the fight against hunger.

If the sequester cuts takes effect, 600,000 low-income pregnant women and children up to age 5 will be cut from the Women, Infants & Children (WIC) program, which currently provides them with a monthly package of nutritious food. SNAP (food stamp) benefits are also scheduled to be cut in order to pay for—if you can believe it—a 2010 deal that improved the nutritional quality of school lunches. After November 1, SNAP benefits will average approximately $1.30 per person per meal. Finally, during the last Congress, both the House Agricultural Committee and the full Senate voted to cut the SNAP program—by $16 billion and $4.5 billion, respectively—so more cuts might be on the horizon.

That’s why a new report from Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger (NYCCAH) and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, is so timely. How President Obama Can Reverse America’s Worsening Hunger Metrics is a practical guide to executive actions Obama can take now “to significantly reduce child hunger, as well as US hunger in general,” according to Berg. In 2008, then-candidate Obama pledged to end childhood hunger by 2015. This report offers ways he can move in that direction without relying on Congress.

Berg is a man who knows this subject. He has served as executive director of NYCCAH since 2001, helping it grow into one of the leading direct service and advocacy organizations on hunger and poverty in the nation, and was a political appointee in the US Department of Agriculture during the Clinton administration. Berg helped start AmeriCorps, and ran a program that mobilized 1,200 people to do anti-hunger work, rural economic development, and environmental work. He created the first-ever federal initiative to help faith-based and other nonprofit groups fight hunger and help low-income Americans move out of poverty. He also coordinated the USDA’s effort to help community groups increase the amount of food they recovered, gleaned, and distributed to hungry Americans.

“My biggest regret when I left the government was that I had finally figured out how the place worked after eight years,” Berg jokes.  

Indeed, two of his key recommendations to Obama involve executive orders that would direct federal agencies to work together to create “food jobs” such as food-processing businesses; and for the agencies to work with the USDA to increase the participation of eligible children, seniors, people with disabilities, veterans, and working families in nutrition programs like SNAP, WIC, home-delivered meals for seniors, and school breakfasts and summer meals.

While directing agencies to work together seems pretty straightforward, Berg notes that “it’s fairly rare for federal agencies to work together in this way—even within a department.” For example, he describes his effort at the USDA to coordinate its work with farmers markets: one division allotted resources to WIC and the senior farmers market programs; another gave money for the creation of new farmers markets; another researched farmers markets; and others dealt directly with the farmers who sold produce at the farmers markets.

“Some of the people who worked on these issues had never met each other, much less worked with each other,” he says. “So you can imagine the challenge of trying to work with the rest of the federal government. But that’s the job of a White House—getting agencies to focus on presidential initiatives.”

Berg notes throughout the report that ultimately the solution to poverty and hunger is a Congress and President pursuing a full employment economy with jobs that pay a living wage. But that’s clearly not going to happen in this political environment.

“My top ideology is effectiveness—getting something done we couldn’t ordinarily get done because we are pushing for it,” says Berg.

So his recommendation to create food jobs is key in that regard: Berg urges Obama to sign an executive order directing the USDA, Small Business Administration, Department of Commerce, Department of Labor, Department of the Interior, and the Corporation for National and Community Service to work together to create food-related jobs and provide the job training and placement services necessary to ensure that low-income Americans obtain and keep those jobs.

He says there have been community food projects at the local level for decades—but they are “very, very small—[involving] hundreds or maybe thousands of people.”

The challenge is figuring out how to scale these businesses up and make them attractive to private investment. For example, New York City public schools serve 4.5 million meals per week. There is significant summer vegetable production in New Jersey and some in the Hudson River Valley. This produce is sometimes shipped across the country for processing and then sold back to New York City public schools.

“Why not instead have a local facility for cleaning, washing, and packaging vegetables for New York City public schools? There could be similar efforts to can, freeze, and process foods in urban centers throughout America,” says Berg. He cites Detroit, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and cities in Texas and Florida as other places with proximity to major agricultural production where these kinds of facilities would make sense. Other food jobs could be created through businesses that turn raw produce into ready-to-eat salads, salad dressings, sandwiches, and other products; or companies that sell healthy food and beverage vending-machines; as well as restaurants and catering businesses that offer affordable and nutritious food.

“There are huge tracts of federal land available out there. But I doubt, for example, that the Department of Transportation left to its own devices would really think about food production possibilities on highway right of ways, or commuter railroad right of ways,” says Berg. “They need a push from the White House. This effort could turn food deserts—where there is little or no access to the food necessary for a healthy diet—into jobs oases.”

Berg also calls for a bipartisan White House Conference on Hunger, either as a stand-alone event or as part of a broader summit on poverty, to launch new effective anti-hunger efforts.

“I make it very clear in the paper, it cannot be merely symbolic—it can’t just be a cattle call of people making speeches,” says Berg. “But if the President uses it to galvanize serious commitments and announces specific initiatives that the administration is doing, then it’s very significant.”

Berg says the kinds of commitments that could be elicited include: corporations increasing food donations and helping with outreach to people who are eligible for SNAP, summer meals, and other federal nutrition programs; corporations working with organized labor to increase wages and the availability of healthier foods; employees doing skills-based service—for example, an accounting firm offering its services pro bono to food pantries and soup kitchens; supermarket chains locating new stores in low-income neighborhoods.

“There are many mainstream corporations that progressives don’t agree with on most issues, but they would agree with them on this, and it’s important to bring them to the table,” says Berg. He believes that organizing people together to fight hunger is an effective way to begin to address broader poverty-related issues.

“I’ve always seen fighting hunger as a way of fighting poverty—an entrée into the poverty debate,” says Berg.

One of the great disappointments for anti-hunger and anti-poverty advocates during President Obama’s first term was that he never produced a plan to end childhood hunger as he had promised to do as a candidate. But it’s not too late. Whether Congress would go along with such a plan isn’t the point. Showing the American people how we could get this done if we wanted to is the point. In his report, Berg offers the President actions he could take—with or without Congress—to demonstrate a real commitment to ending hunger in America.